BRUGES - To feed the hungry and to give drink to the thirsty is a matter of honour. In Bruges, they put this into practice. Three-and-a-half million tourists succumb to the temptation of chocolate and other delicacies.
Native 'Bruggelingen' as well as foodies from all over the world find their way to the crème de la crème of the city’s restaurants.
“Do you like Bruges?” I ask a Japanese tourist at the station. “Of course!” she replies, “who wouldn’t?” I can hear the clatter of horses’ hooves on the cobblestones. I make way for one of the many carriages. The boats on the reien canals are engaged in a mad competition. A singer, whom I have not heard of before, sings her ode to all this beauty frozen in time.
In the heart of Bruges, local chocolate god Dominique Persoone also melts when he contemplates his city. “Quaint, safe, romantic, beautiful at any time, the ideal holiday destination, fine dining and... the home of chocolate,” is how he sums it up. “With more than 50 chocolate shops!”.
The man now giving us the tour of this city, which will encompass tequila shots and chocolate lipstick, shows himself to be a Bruggeling born and bred. Dominique is the preferred supplier to Dutch chef Sergio Herman, the Hof Van Cleve and other award-winning restaurants. There is more than a hint of Tintin about him.
“I will source star-quality cocoa beans and conclude a deal with the farmer,” he tells us. This has a whiff of adventure, of jungle tours in Mexico, Guatemala and Papua New Guinea. Dominique likes a challenge. Chocolate sourced from the farmer, infused with aromas such as tobacco, rum, cognac, wasabi, chilli, oysters, cauliflower, freshly mown grass...
“I love to play around with taste,” he says. “I love to bring my clients to ecstasy with the use of surprising colours, aromas and sounds.”
Dominique Persoone has regular brainstorming sessions with the top chefs of The Fat Duck and Noma.
Disco spheres covered in edible gold served to the tunes of Saturday Night Fever? Why not. Or a snorting machine for the Stones?
So, what is the biggest challenge for our chocolatier? “First and foremost, to source the very best ingredients,” he responds. “Also, I always aim to strike a beautiful balance, such as pairing a lovely organic white chocolate with cauliflower. I never stop pushing my own boundaries and always aim to surprise.”
With help from his colleagues, he constructed a two-tonne chocolate swan. Chocolate festivals, a museum, a walk... If you visit Bruges, you will have to immerse yourself in chocolate.
The real Bruges is synonymous with pastries such as 'achten', 'lukken', 'kletskoppen' and 'beschuit'. Totally authentic. The bakers en traiteurs proudly display their wares. But where do they come from? I can’t wait to visit Oud Huis Deman where An De Meester is to treat me to speculaas ‘varsch ut d’n ovn’ (freshly baked from the oven). Lovely spicy biscuits.
Brugse Beschuiten, I discover, are toasted slices of white bread, with various milk and spice ingredients, but always with a generous covering of fresh candy sugar.
Burgundian foodies love to pair it with cheese as a tasty brie – preferably à point – or a hefty helping of époisses cheese. As far as we are concerned any quality Belgian cheese would be a worthy candidate.
“Everything is made on the premises,” An assures us, her hands covered in flour. “In 1880 we started making speculaas, honey cakes, Greek bread, cigarettes russes, almond bread, lukken, Bruges biscuit and Brugse Achten. The history of the Brugse Achten (“Eights”) harks back to the times of Mary of Burgundy. Mary insisted she wanted a sweet but hard crust for her pastry.
So the dough was formed and baked in octagonal shapes and they retain that shape up to the present day. This biscuit reminds me of a palmier. The bakers wanted to make savings where they could. As an example, some of the wooden (beech) moulds used for the speculaas cookies had raised edges.
Chef Achim Vandenbussche of Den Dyver opts for beer. “I go for a pure taste and that includes my vegetable and herbal balms,” he tells me. “The quality of our beers is still underestimated. It’s fun to use beer when cooking. I think a recipe is successful only if the ingredients add value and you can no longer taste the beer. Just to explain: beer reinforces the taste of a good product.
Occasionally, a beer does not suit a particular dish but if you use beer in its preparation, the palate changes and a beer then becomes a perfect match.”
A chocolate mousse fondant paired with a Rochefort 10, a Herve cheese with a Leireken beer, sea bass with an Orval, marinated salmon accompanied by Oude Gueuze… the combinations are endless. Achim’s dad, Guido Vandenbussche, feels that beer is more appreciated these days.
“There is a shift from drinking lots to just enjoying a beer you like. Beer is covering the entire range of tastes, for instance, it is the ideal complement to cheese.” Guido serves his beer in glasses “that could also be used for wine.” Is this the world turned upside down?
Our next stop is De Halve Maan. This, Bruges’ only city brewery, is owned by the sixth generation of the Maes-Vanneste family.
The Halve Maan scores full marks with the hopped blonde (6%) and brown (7.5%) Brugse Zot and the triple Straffe Hendrik (9%).
Brewer Xavier Vanneste assures me that international tourists never cease to be amazed by the Belgian beer culture and its rituals. I notice this as well on the busy and popular brewery tour.
Each beer has its own glass, whereas in many parts of the world, beer is simply drunk from the bottle. Our foreign guests are fascinated by the diversity of our beer and the art of serving them. “Belgian specialty beers can look forward to a beautiful future abroad if they manage to retain their authenticity and quality,” is Xavier Vanneste’s opinion.
I set off to find out. Ivan Verhaeghe manages the Manuscript restaurant, which is part of the prestigious five-star Kempinski Duke’s Palace hotel. Ivan spent years working for La Réserve in Knokke. “I like to use regional products, freshly delivered each day, such as turbot or lamb, presented with a modern slant,” the chef tells us.
Half of Manuscript’s custom is from hotel guests. “The tourists appreciate the Belgian classics: shrimp croquettes, meat braised in Rodenbach Grand Cru, hop shoots in white beer…” the chef observes.
“In a hotel, you have to make sure there is enough variety. There’s something new on the menu every day.”
Working for an international hotel chain has its advantages, it would appear. “We have regular exchanges with chefs from other countries,” Ivan explains.
“For example, we recently staged a Turkish and a Spanish week. From time to time, our international colleagues will host a visit from us.”
Geert Van Hecke of De Karmeliet (3***) and bistro De Refter has been a star on Bruges’ culinary skyline for many years. Twenty-eight, to be precise, and he has not lost any of his drive. “I don’t miss any of our services,” he tells me.
“Needless to say, this is all I do.” Geert insists on respecting the basic rules of the classic – primarily French/Belgian – cuisine.
“Sorry, but strawberries and plain chocolate really do not go together. Oranges and chocolate do, provided the oranges are used in a confit!”
The award-winning chef loves to use fresh herbs and eastern spices. He started his journey towards world cuisine 25 years ago with a chop suey with bacon and mackerel.
Closer to home, he will select top quality seasonal products such as lamb from Pauillac, pigeons from Dombes or black Richerenches truffles found in the Vaucluse.
We cross the terrace and end up in an entirely different world. The name De Refter refers to the dining room of the former Carmelite priory.
The bistro has a remarkably young look about it which, by the way, applies to the staff as well. Management is in the hands of Geert’s son Louis, who, like his dad, is an alumnus of Hotelschool Ter Duinen in Koksijde. Another well-known Bruges restaurant is Den Gouden Harynck (the Golden Herring) where Philippe Serruys has been reaching culinary heights for 32 years.
The name of this historic 17th century building (strictly speaking, four small houses knocked together), is a reminder of the fishmongers who used to trade from here. The chef makes good use of herbs, spices and aromas in his inventive kitchen. I ask him how Bruges gained its culinary reputation.
“We have a solid base in a small army of good ‘patrons’ and through the hotel schools,” Philippe responds. “Well-trained chefs are branching out and are starting up their own businesses.
Also, this is a fertile ground with on the one hand, Burgundian ‘Bruggelingen’ and other Belgians, and foodies from abroad on the other hand. Did you know that nowadays, many people make restaurant reservations first and only then pick their hotel?”
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